The Milwaukee Brewers have spent much of September with 34 players on their active roster, but few have taken a journey to get there that compares to 2014 Timber Rattlers pitcher Taylor Williams' experience.
Williams was a fourth round pick in the 2013 draft and spent most of his first full professional season with Wisconsin, making 22 appearances (12 starts) and posting a 2.36 ERA over 107 innings. That performance earned him a promotion to High-A Brevard County in August and eventually an invitation to major league spring training for 2015.
His first Cactus League appearance, however, was his last game action for over a year. Williams suffered an injury to his throwing elbow that required "Tommy John" surgery to replace his ulnar collateral ligament and missed the entirety of two regular seasons before returning to game action during the Brewers' Instructional League camp about a year ago. Williams was finally back on an active roster to open the 2017 season with AA Biloxi, and his performance there earned him a September call up to join the Brewers. He made his major league debut in Cincinnati on September 6.
"It's been a long last three years going from Appleton to here, but I've enjoyed every bit of it, ups and downs. I'm just trying to enjoy the process. It's nice to be here and just taking everything in," Williams said.
The rehabilitation process kept Williams away from his teammates for months as he worked his way back in Arizona, but he said that his extended challenges didn't change his appreciation of the end result.
"I think I appreciate it equally no matter what happened, you know?" Williams said. "This has been a dream of mine ever since I was a kid. So whether I went through the ups and downs of having to go through surgery, I think I'd still appreciate it just as much just because it's something that I've worked towards for so long. To finally accomplish that, I think it's special no matter what."
Williams spent much of his recovery process under the watchful eye of Timber Rattlers pitching coach Steve Cline, who was based at the Brewers' Maryvale facility at the time. Cline was there when Williams resumed throwing in January of 2016, when he was back on the mound for the first time for a bullpen session in June and when he started throwing live batting practice to hitters in August in preparation for Instructional League.
"Anytime anybody that's passed by you on their way to the big leagues gets there, it's always exciting just to see them finally get to their destination. Now the trick is to try to stay there," Cline said. "But particularly guys that go through the surgery and go through the rehab and actually get to the big leagues, it's just nice to see. You're happy for the young man because you know what effort and time and patience on their part they put in to get it."
For much of their time together Cline's task was to help Williams redevelop his mechanics after going months without throwing a baseball and undergoing major elbow surgery.
"I was just being very meticulous as to how things were working out," Cline said. "We wanted to make sure that his delivery and how he was throwing, his arm path and that kind of stuff looked right. For me it was more about feeling right, so it comes down to health."
Finally healthy, Williams was able to post a 3.09 ERA over 22 appearances for Biloxi in 2017 to earn an opportunity to pitch in the major leagues in September. He described his first couple of weeks with the Brewers as "awesome."
"We're in the race right now so that makes it even better," Williams said. "We have an awesome group of guys in the clubhouse, especially in the bullpen where I'm at right now. So I'm taking everything in, trying to learn every single day and get better. It's been amazing. It's everything that they say it is and better."
Williams pitched in the bullpen on a few occasions during his time in the minors, but said the preparation that goes into pitching in relief in the majors is different.
"There's a lot more that goes into the game here at this level in terms of having scouting reports and numbers to look at and being able to analyze hitters and all those different things. But the biggest thing is having those guys out in the bullpen where I can pick their brain," Williams said. "A lot of those guys have a lot of experience. It's not so much just asking them about scouting reports and stuff, but it's talking to them and getting what they do to prepare or what their mindset is in certain situations and asking them why they've been successful, what helps them. That's helped me a lot, even in just the week and a half I've been up here."
Williams is part of a 12-member bullpen for the Brewers in September, so he's had to wait a bit between opportunities to get into games. He'll be ready whenever the call comes, though.
"Right now we're playing in a lot of close ball games, and so you're trying to stay ready every single day whether that's doing your work in the weight room or the training room or throwing," Williams said. "Sometimes you've got to throw more on the field (pre-game) if you're not going to get in the game that day. But you've got to go into it with the mindset to prepare to be ready every single day, no matter whether you're going to throw or not. You have to be mentally ready to go."
It would be understandable if Williams was feeling the pressure to make the most of a limited opportunity to show he belongs in the majors, but he doesn't see it that way.
"The pressure is only what you put on yourself at this level. If you get here and start thinking too much about the fact that you have to perform and stay here and all that then you're worrying about the wrong things," Williams said. "This is something I've been working towards my whole life. So to get here and to start worrying about putting the pressure on myself to perform, I'd be doing myself wrong. I'm here to enjoy it, and to work every single day to get better. I understand that if I put the work in that I need to do and give everything I have and go out there and focus and do what I'm capable of, then the rest will take care of itself and I'll stay here."
Meanwhile, Cline said Williams' callup is a "tremendous" piece of encouragement for players currently working their way back from injury as a clear demonstration that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
"It's big from a mental standpoint for a guy like Adrian Houser: Adrian had his surgery and I think Taylor was throwing at that time. So from a mental standpoint it's a big pick-me-up saying 'look, it really does happen. I know this guy.' You see it from afar sometimes where guys from other organizations make it all the way back, and all of a sudden you know this guy personally. You know what he went through and now you're thinking 'I can do that too,'" Cline said.
With his rehabilitation process finally concluded, Williams is now free to do the job he's spent his whole life working to reach: Getting batters out in the major leagues.
"I want to help the team win any way I possibly can. So whenever I come in the game, my job is to get outs. That's what I want to accomplish," Williams said.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.